Kofi Annan, the diplomat from Ghana who led the United Nations for two successive five-year terms starting in 1997, died Saturday. He was 80 and died after a short illness, according to a statement issued by the Kofi Annan Foundation. Annan, who was born in Ghana, was the first black African to lead the United Nations and also the first to rise from within the staff of the multilateral organization.
As the seventh secretary general, Annan took on a high profile and was seen as key to redefining the United Nations for a new age. That work seemed to be recognized in 2001, when Annan was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the United Nations “for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world.”
Even as he was praised as a global statesman, Annan had to navigate a turbulent period of the United Nations where the organization often failed at its goal of keeping the peace and was also engulfed in scandals. But as a savvy diplomat he managed to stay above the fray and his “enduring moral prestige remained largely undented,” notes the Associated Press, which credits his “charisma and by virtue of having negotiated with most of the powers in the world.”
Annan was staunchly opposed to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and in a 2013 interview with Time he called the failure to stop the war “my darkest moment.” Iraq also became the source of embarrassment for him as he was at the heart of a corruption scandal when it was revealed his son was involved in a company that won a lucrative contract in what was known as the Iraq oil for food program.
After stepping down, Annan remained deeply involved in the international community and in February 2012, the United Nations appointed him the U.N. and Arab League joint special envoy to Syria. He quit six months later in frustration.
Although Annan almost became synonymous with the United Nations for a decade, he was well aware of the organization’s flaws. “The U.N. can be improved, it is not perfect but if it didn’t exist you would have to create it,” he told the BBC in April. “I am a stubborn optimist, I was born an optimist and will remain an optimist.”
Current U.N. chief António Guterres praised Annan as “a guiding force for good.” Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo announced the Ghanaian flag would fly at half staff across the country. The U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, called Annan “humanity’s best example, the epitome, of human decency and grace.” At a time when the world is “filled with leaders who are anything but that, our loss, the world’s loss becomes even more painful,” he added.